Roots, Wings, Bridges, and Abs

This week, Rev. Lee Paczulla at my church was talking about a popular development metaphor: that people need roots and wings. It refers to our need to be both grounded and aflight.

“A wise woman once said to me that there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these she said is roots, the other, wings.” – Hodding Carter, journalist, in his book Where Main Street Meets The River, 1953

A lot of times it gets used in reference to children. That we want our children to grow up with roots and wings—with a sense of grounding and connectedness AND with a sense of adventure and freedom. Me, I think it sounds like something for all of us, not just kids.

But, there’s an issue. As Rev. Lee correctly points out, this is a metaphor at odds with itself.

It’s also at odds with a world in which safety has been fetishized, where people wish to accept no risk—the expectation that all dangers can be screened from our lives. At the same time there is a lot of anger in the country that individuals’ wings are being clipped.

In short, this request for both total liberty (wings) AND total safety (root) is at odds with itself.

I felt this tension most recently on a Wednesday several weeks back when the family-owned company for which I’ve worked the past nine years announced it would entertain offers for sale.

I had two reactions at the same time:

  • One that was essentially defensive. I have enjoyed my time here and I believe in the mission of the company, to help people to live fuller lives. I am 51, appreciate and like my employer, and know that it could be tough to find a similar one. How dare anyone consider anything that would threaten that mission (and me)?
  • One that was more considered, that accepted the possibility that the family might be ready to separate from the company—that it might, indeed, be exhausted from the rapid changes in the publishing industry that have driven down the value of all publishing properties in the past two decades and, personally, recognizing something inside me, a yearning that it was time for something new.

I was struck by the duality and a deeper truth—it led me to realize that the tension between all these things does not play out in our extremes, not in our roots nor our wings. It hit me in my gut. Literally.

It made me appreciate that what an engaged person needs to resolve the tension between roots and wings, between liberty and safety, is a strong core. We need spiritual pilates, people! We need some holy abs.

And that got me to thinking about how the gut is not where reconciliation happens, and that perhaps it is more useful to think of the way we reconcile between roots and wings as a bridge, connecting two shores. The bridge metaphor is helpful in that a bridge cannot pull the sides together, it doesn’t make the two banks one. Instead, it can allow transport between them—of thoughts, of energy, of salves. A bridge enables flow,  across it and underneath it.

That’s helpful when thinking of many things, including this country, with two shores that are so far apart right now that there will be no resolution in the near term. The best we can hope for is a bridge to facilitate flow.

Closer to home, I need that personally, as I consider an uncertain future. With a son still in college and a family to tend to, I have a ravenous appetite for roots, for security. And I know that this world, ultimately and despite my deepest desires, is an uncertain place. As someone who recently renewed my wedding vows (after 25 years operating under the original ones) with a commitment to adventure, I yearn for wings, for what comes next.

How to reconcile the tension in these two desires?

I don’t know, and I don’t feel alone. I see this tension being played out among my friends (guys especially) who are, like me, well into the second act of their work careers and find that the benefits of having “made it” co-exist with the reality that you can quickly become a target, too, in any cost-savings plan. That your skills are expensive. Some, to use the HR language, have been “separated” or they have stepped out of their careers voluntarily. Some have re-created themselves; others are still trying to figure out how to proceed. I see it play out 300 million strong, in the coarse barking of our national conversation. The yearning for rootedness and flight—for safety and liberty, the politicized expression of this—is a tension that seems as if it is going to get worse before it resolves itself. And the resolution will not be the joining of the far shores, but an understanding that these two shores hold a fluid truth between them. We are not a nation but a vessel, holding the fates of these millions and millions of people, and many more, in its shores and beyond. These shores can be kind or cruel, informed or ignorant. But there is no movement without banks, within which the water flows.

And … back to the need for a resilient core. What are these spiritual pilates? What work can I do to contain these opposing desires at once, to span the river between two distant shores?

For me, that work revolves around compassion, self-awareness, and connection. With recognizing my abilities and my limitations, both formidable. With realizing that the path forward is a softening, not a hardening. And it is a connecting—that ultimately, strangely, the bridge is flow, too.

It is both listening and speaking. It is following a call and stepping up when needed. It is the new and the familiar. It is knowing that every day dawns a fresh creation and I have a curious place in it.

This image of standing on the bridge, and being of the flow, this fills me with light.

I hope you sense the light, too.

For the country, I know even less. And still—still I feel that until we wrestle this dual fetish for uncompromising safety and unquestioned liberty to the ground, we’ll be circling this same angry, frustrated, fruitless round as a nation. The answer, I think, is trust in and accountability to each other. We need to be able to manage the tension between stubborn rootedness and selfish flight. We need a center—again, a core. Or maybe it works to think of it as a Commons. With a reality we can agree on. Without that, it seems all discussion goes nowhere. So, yes, to roots and wings, but also to a strong stomach, a civil Commons, and a supple bridge.

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